The Republic of Biafra was a secessionist state at the center of a bloody three year civil war from 1967 to 1970, waged against the Nigerian government, and named for an Atlantic bay in southwestern Nigeria known as the Bight of Biafra. The leader of the secessionist movement was Igbo General Emeka Ojukwu, who had served as the regional governor prior to the outbreak of the war, and had both loyalty from the population and significant control over the media.
The war was prompted by several events. First, northern and western Nigerians perceived that a 1966 coup led by Roman Catholic Igbo Major Kaduna Nzeogwu—during which a number of non-Igbo leaders were executed, including Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, Bello’s wife, and western premier Samuel Akintola—was an Igbo-led initiative against northern dominance. This led to a violent backlash against the Igbo, including a 1966 counter-coup resulting in the deaths of several hundred Igbo military officers and deadly attacks against Igbo living in the north, causing a massive migration of 2 million Igbo refugees to their traditional homeland in the east. However, it is incorrect to assume that the Igbo were alone in the war. In fact, Nigeria’s east is as diverse as the entire nation, and Yoruba, Kalabari, and Ogoni were also represented in leadership positions fighting alongside the Igbo.
Another important motivation behind the secession was the high concentration of oil reserves in the east, and tensions over the relatively few benefits received by regional inhabitants compared to the immense oil wealth benefiting the nation. Biafran leaders anticipated that oil companies would support their side in the war in return for favorable oil contracts. However, these companies chose a more conservative policy and lent support to the Nigerian government. During early reconciliation talks prior to the war between Ojukwu and Nigerian head of state Yakubu Gowon, Ojukwu redirected local revenue to local treasuries, and away from the federal treasury, citing the support needed for Igbo refugees as discussed during the talks. However, the government portrayed Gowon’s action as redirecting oil wealth in the east away from other Nigerians, and responding by preventing services from reaching the eastern region. Shortly thereafter, Gowon split the eastern region into three, which was followed by Ojukwu’s declaration of secession and war.
The civil war was immensely destructive, with high casualties on both sides. The Nigerian government imposed a blockade on the region, which eventually came to include humanitarian aid. Catholic missions inside of Biafra were instrumental in sharing news and images with the international community. Ojukwu fled to Cote d’Ivoires on January 11, 1970, and the Biafrans surrendered on January 15.
Another recent attempt at secession took place in 2005 led by the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob), who called for the release of their imprisoned leader, the release of a Niger Delta militant environmental activist (see MEND), and lambasted corruption in Nigerian politics, but was swiftly put down by the Nigerian government. Igno ethnic nationalism, an upsurge in Pentecostalism, and the widespread belief among Igbo that they are deliberately marginalized by the Nigerian government account provide the fertile soil for continued grievances against the state and fuel the continuing desire for secession.
Eddie Enyeobi Okafor, “Republic of Biafra,” Encyclopedia of Africa, eds. Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 178-180.
Trevor Rubenzer, “Nigeria: 1967-1970,” Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts Since World War II (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2007), pp. 567-584.
Daniel Jordan Smith, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria, eds. Karl DeRouen and Uk Heo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).